As I prepare for this week’s Writing and Publishing Seminar in Boston, I am reflecting on that challenging moment for genealogists when research gives way to writing. It’s important, at this stage, to begin thinking about the potential article or book as something quite distinct from the research project it has been until now.
Research is messy and enthralling; good articles and books may well be enthralling, but they are not . . . messy. Research notes record the thrill of the chase; at times, they can be a forum for reflection. They are not, as a rule, a summary or a reasoned argument.
Articles and books are that summary. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and they set out to lead the reader through what may be a complicated – even messy – subject by way of clearly defined structures and narrative forms. It follows that what works on the notebook page may be inadequate for your purposes, and the sooner you can think about your project in the guise of a book, the better.
As a genealogist, for whom are you writing? your immediate and extended family, certainly; for the larger genealogical community and posterity, definitely. Your family will likely be uncritical, perhaps even indifferent, but fellow genealogists – and future readers, for whom your “message in a bottle” from our present to theirs will be invaluable – will expect you to be clear and easy-to-follow. Some of that ease is actually largely a function of editorial craft, so herewith some suggestions:
- Write a table of contents: It will help you determine what your book (or article) is about; this, in turn, leads to your title.
- Write that book (or article). You’ve struggled to articulate to yourself the contents of your work. Everything else you’ve been working on is outside the scope of it: not to be abandoned or neglected, but clearly not belonging to the work at hand.
- Be flexible. Write to your table of contents and your title, but recognize that the act of shaping and writing your argument will inevitably lead you to breakthroughs in logic and understanding of your subject. This is (really) O.K.
- You can write your book out of order. You can! You have a table of contents: You know Chapter 3 (“California Gold Rush: 1849”) precedes Chapter 6 (“Hollywoodland: 1927”), and you can focus on those chapters in whatever order and to whatever extent pleases you.
- When in doubt, start writing, because
- You can fix anything that displeases you when you revise.
- Remember: You are the writer, and you have the power and the responsibility to guide your reader through your book’s argument. Easier said than done, I know, but well-worth repeating.